Hemp and High Fashion

 woman in yellow dress and hat - hemp and high fashion

As the world’s favourite textile, cotton remains king…for the moment. This fibre may soon be dethroned by hemp and for many good reasons. Hemp becomes softer with wear and retains its strength over time, wet or dry. It can be grown almost anywhere and does not require the ample irrigation of thirsty cotton, which drinks up to more than five times as much water. But is hemp the miraculous sustainable answer to humankind’s never-ending textile needs?


Hemp is thought to be one of the earliest cultivated plants, with evidence of its crops from over 10,000 years ago. Early humans may have noticed that hemp grew abundantly with very little agronomic effort. The plant’s success comes from its natural resistance to insect pests and diseases, and its rapid growth, which outpaces any other plants competing for essential resources.

A Brief Timeline in the Western Hemisphere


·         1545—Spaniards bring hemp to the Western world and start to cultivate it in Chile.

·         1606—French botanist Louis Hebert sows the first hemp crop in North America in present-day Nova Scotia.

·         1801—The King of England distributes hemp seed free to Canadian farmers in the province of Upper Canada.

·         1937—Hemp is the largest cash crop in the U.S. until its prohibition.

·         1997—Canada allows hemp cultivation again.

·         2015—Over 84,000 acres in Canada are licensed for cultivation; hemp is now grown coast to coast.

·         2018—U.S. Farm Bill restores hemp’s status as a legitimate farm crop.

"Hemp has 0.3% or less THC," say Brandon McFadden of the University of Delaware and Trey Malone of Michigan State University, "meaning hemp-derived products don’t contain enough THC to create the 'high' traditionally associated with marijuana."

Hemp grown commercially for its fibre has no value as a recreational drug, yet still a broad-spectrum prohibition of cannabis was issued in the 20th century, making industrial hemp just as illegal as marijuana and thus destroying the hemp textile industry. By the late 1990s, however, hemp production had begun anew in countries like the U.K. and Canada, where it had been banned.

How Hemp Compares to Cotton

hemp leaves - hemp and high fashion

Cotton accounts for less than 2.5% of cropland worldwide, yet 16% of the world’s pesticide use. Ecosystems that receive run-off from cotton farms suffer severe negative impacts such as decreasing animal fertility and decreasing freshwater biodiversity.

Hemp production can use similar amounts of pesticides as cotton production, but it has a smaller overall ecological footprint because of its higher yield per acre planted. It is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, reaching maturity in just three to four months. It outpaces weeds and other plants which could compete for resources and is known for being resistant to common pests and diseases that can wipe out other, more vulnerable cash crops, lessening the need for herbicides and pesticides.

 “The Stockholm Environment Institute analyzed the UK production of cotton vs.hemp and found that one grow used an estimated 10,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton compared to about 300-500 liters of water to produce 1kg of dry hemp matter…”


Deep reaching hemp roots hold soil together thus preventing erosion, but also loosen up and aerate the earth, making it receptive to the next crop. They also deposit beneficial carbon dioxide into the dirt and the plants return a biomass of 70-80% of the nutrients they take from the ground, leaving a high quality soil for the next crop.

Who is Making Hemp Fashions?

From big names such as Levi’s and Nike to boutique brands such as Valani and TenTree, hemp apparel is claiming a bigger and bigger share of the fashion market. And good thing too. Fashion manufacturing has been identified as the second largest industry in the world when it comes to pollution.

Couture catwalks and everyday wear catalogues are devoting more space to hemp textile clothing. Looking for jeans? Levi’s has returned to its “hempy” roots with “cottonised hemp” clothing that promises not to be scratchy. Perhaps you’ve got a posh do on your calendar, but refuse to forsake your green ideology simply for the requisite cocktail dress code. Look to Donna Karan and Yves Saint Laurent and even eBay and Etsy for countless options that stay true to your sustainable ethos.

And who is supplying all this glorious fabric? One major supplier is EnviroTextiles, which weaves or imports over 100 different kinds of hemp fabric. Buyers include high fashion designers such as Ralph Lauren, Donatella Versace, Calvin Klein, and many others. From knits to silk, there isn’t a texture that can’t be made from hemp. Case in point: in The Last Airbender, all the costumes were constructed out of 100 percent hemp with fabric provided by EnviroTextiles.

Hemp Fabric

The tight weave of hemp fabric gives significant protection from UV rays and prevents stretching. In addition to being hypoallergenic and non-irritating to skin, hemp is able to kill staph and other bacteria that come in contact with its surface. It is resistant to mould and mildew too.

Made of natural fibres, hemp cloth won’t carry rich colours the way synthetic materials can, but it is resistant to pigment load fading. Perhaps most notably, hemp clothing doesn’t weaken, but instead becomes softer with each wearing and laundering, and holds its strength when wet. It offers excellent ventilation, insulation, and abrasion resistance.

Care is environmental-friendly: cold water wash and do not use bleach. Air dry—using a dryer can cause wrinkles and shrinkage. Pure hemp may develop wrinkles, but an overnight hang up will see these fall out. Iron only if necessary.

An article of pure hemp fabric can decompose in as little as two weeks after its committal to the earth.

Hemp apparel can be a little more expensive, but, as industrial hemp production takes off again, prices will fall in accordance with the scale of industry growth.

The take home message? Hempit’s not just for hippies anymore. This highly sustainable crop is now found as sustainable fashions for every occasion.

By Jane Thornton

Feature image: Godisable Jacob; Image 1: Elsa Olofsson